- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

From humble practical beginnings as a source-stroking ritual, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has grown inexorably into an ever-glitzier nexus of power, celebrity and glamour — until this year.

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and an unprecedented shakeout in the news business, politicians, journalists and visiting entertainment celebrities are leery of flaunting the bling and designer fashions synonymous with privilege.

On the red carpet this year, austerity — whether real or feigned — is the new black.

“I shopped my closet,” says communications director Alisha Farmer of MaxMara, a retail line available exclusively at Bloomingdale’s in Chevy Chase, when asked what she expects celebrities to answer this weekend when asked the inevitable question, “Who are you wearing?”

Unlike this week’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in Manhattan, where model Kate Moss turned up looking like a “Dynasty” star in a gold-lame minidress with matching turban, fashion experts and dinner attendees tell The Washington Times that this weekend you’ll see more subdued looks in politically sensitive Washington.

Anne Hathaway, Brooke Shields, and Eva Longoria Parker were among those that attended the New York gala looking like a million bucks with big hair, big baubles and sky-high stilettos, but this weekend, you can expect them to play it safe.

“We’re hearing that a lot these days,” Ms. Farmer reports. “No one wants to be seen as the odd one out. People are going to play it low-key and conservative. Instead of bright, flashy jewelry you will see bright, positive colors.”

Local shoe designer Kassie Rempel predicts that designers and price tags will be a taboo subject on the red carpet and at the afterparties. “It’s not a question that’s being asked because people don’t want to talk about their favorite designers like they used to,” she says.

When queried about an elegant frock she wore to a recent soiree, Abigail Blunt, wife of Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, sheepishly said she bought it at Neiman Marcus, but would not disclose the designer.

Even among news personalities, there is caution about appearances, says Steve Scully, C-SPAN’s morning anchor and a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “Everyone is aware that these are tough economic times for every industry, including our own,” he says. “So yes, while the dinner will be a great event, those in attendance will be toning it down. My tux comes from Filene’s Basement.”

Shannon Bream of Fox News says her “glamorous pre-dinner prep” will be strictly do-it-yourself. “It will likely consist of me running around the house with a head full of pink Velcro rollers and making my best attempts at applying my own eyelashes,” she says. “So, if one manages to migrate down my cheek, I will have only myself to blame, not a pricey professional. As for transport, it will be a carpool — and not car service — this time around.”

Dress recycling is another trend that is in vogue among those attuned to the mood of recession-weary constituents and audiences.

“The label is wearing off. It’s an old dress for my old grandma body,” says Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, who told The Washington Times she is fond of rocking the same John Galliano body-hugging number she bought at Saks Jandel some 20 years ago. (Mrs. Harman, the wife of Harman Kardon, founder Sidney Harman, is the second-most wealthy member of Congress.)

CNN’s Gloria Borger said she’ll be showing up at the Capital Hilton this Saturday in the same black cocktail frock she wore last weekend at the Kennedy Center Spring Gala.

Ms. Borger’s CNN colleague Ed Henry has also discovered the virtues of recycling. “Every year before this dinner I go out and spend far too much money on a new tuxedo shirt and tie, always telling myself I can justify the expense because I’ll re-use the combo next year,” he said. “Except I never recycle — I always run out and buy a new shirt and tie the following year. Well, this year I’m finally recycling last year’s stuff. I guess recycling can save the Earth — and a few bucks, too.”

As for former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, she volunteered her fondness for wearing a long, champagne-hued gown she originally purchased for President Clinton’s 1997 second inaugural.

Who is the designer? “I have no idea,” she says proudly.

The select few who are shopping for new merchandise talk about it almost penitently.

“I normally wear the same thing 10,000 times, but this year I wanted to splurge to help the economy and my personal shopper who is a good friend,” said CNN’s Dana Bash.

After some prying, Ms. Bash confessed that she, too, purchased her dinner dress from Nieman Marcus, but did so with some trepidation. “I wonder what the public-relations people are going to say,” she allowed.

Nerves are slightly tender after first lady Michelle Obama was taken to task in the press last week for attending a charity event in Lanvin sneakers available only at select stores like Barney’s for over $500.

Mrs. Obama’s press office is not revealing what (or who) the first lady will wear to the dinner, but Sydne Bolden Long, InStyle magazine’s senior style editor, says that Mrs. Obama should not be judged harshly, as many women “like to have a glamorous moment and experiment” with indulgences.

However, red-carpet indulgences are rarer in this economic climate, she says. Instead, she expects Correspondents’ Dinner attendees to boast of alterations and embellishments, not labels and designers.

She says it has become chic to take a dress and “shorten the sleeve or the hemline, or add a stellar shoe or necklace to something you already have.”

Fashion designer Vera Wang says “it’s absolutely OK to wear the same dress, just wear an accessory or statement necklace to mix it up.”

Of course, the recycling thing can be taken too far.

“I don’t like to encourage people to wear things again because I want them to buy a new dress,” Ms. Wang says, half kidding.

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